the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 4   --   November, 2001

Ernst Weiß:
A Preliminary Survey


Weiß in English
Franz Kafka
Thomas Mann
Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth
Odds, Ends


       Ernst Weiss.
       Or rather: Ernst Weiß, with the proper sharp ß.

       He was born 28 August 1882, in Weinberg, near Brünn (now Brno).

       Weiß studied medicine, graduating in 1908. He practiced in Berne, Berlin, and Vienna (under Professor Julius Schnitzler, the brother of Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler). Reconvalescing after contracting tuberculosis he became ship's doctor aboard the ocean-liner Austria, travelling to India and Japan.

       In 1913 his first novel, Die Galeere, was published. It had been rejected by twenty-three publishers.
       Franz Kafka helped him edit it.

       Weiß would go on to publish over a dozen novels, as well as stories, plays, and reviews. Among his publishers were S.Fischer, Kurt Wolff, Ernst Rowohlt, Propyläen Verlag, Ullstein, Zsolnay, and the Amsterdam exile-publisher, Querido.

       Weiß achieved considerable critical success.
       He was awarded a silver medal in the literary competition at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics (when they still did that sort of thing) for Boëtius von Orlamünde (later re-published as: Der Aristokrat). He won the Adalbert Stifter prize for it as well.

       He achieved a measure of popular success, but never attained complete financial security. Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig were among those that helped support him in the late 1930s.

       Ernst Weiß returned to Prague in 1933 to care for his dying mother.
       He emigrated to Paris after her death in 1934

       Weiß had an enduring, tempestuous relationship with the actress and author Rahel Sanzara. She died in 1936.

       In 1938 Weiß submitted a manuscript, Der Augenzeuge, for a literary competition sponsored by the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom. He would achieve some additional posthumous renown with this Hitler novel when it was finally published in 1963.
       Originally published as Der Augenzeuge, the publishers were forced to stamp a new title -- Ich, der Augenzeuge -- across the cover after a competing publisher instituted legal proceedings, having just published a translation of Alain Robbe-Grillet's Le Voyeur under the same title.

       Weiß hoped that winning the literary competition would help him to obtain a visa for the United States.

       Arnold Bender won the competition.

       Weiß remained in Paris.

       On 14 June 1940 the Germans marched into Paris.

       Weiß tried to take his life the same day.

       He died 15 June 1940.

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       Weiß has not completely disappeared from view.
       His books continued to be republished after his death, culminating in Suhrkamp's 1982 publication of the 16-volume edition of the collected works (edited by Peter Engel and Volker Michels). Not all of the volumes remain in print, but Suhrkamp continues to reissue some of these titles.

       Weiß nevertheless remains underappreciated.

       Numerous serious German literary histories completely ignore him.

       Few of his works have been translated.

       The breadth of Weiß' work -- from exemplary Expressionistic works to naturalist novels, and including socially critical and politically prescient fiction -- and the quality of the best of his writing should ensure that he will not be entirely forgotten, that he will resurface again.
       The works are uneven. Weiß didn't stick to the styles and subjects that brought him success. He was always moving on and ahead. He never shied away from experimentation. He insisted on it. Eventually, usually, he got it oh so right.

       His Hitler-novel The Eyewitness (Der Augenzeuge) remains widely read.

       His Georg Letham (1931) is one of the great novels of that time.

       Other works are also highly acclaimed: The Aristocrat (Boëtius von Orlamünde / Der Aristokrat), the crime-reportage Der Fall Vukobrankovics, Der Verführer (dedicated to -- and gratefully accepted by -- Thomas Mann). Others, too.

       Even the lesser period-pieces are rich in description, stylish, daring. Almost all particularly effectively convey the difficult period between the wars.

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      Weiß in English:

       Only two of Ernst Weiß' books have been translated into English.

       Serpent's Tail published The Aristocrat (Martin Chalmers' translation of Boëtius von Orlamünde / Der Aristokrat) in a paperback original in 1994, adorning the covers with no less than three glowing testimonials from Thomas Mann.
       On the bookflaps they say it is "the first English translation" of Weiss.

       Despite the fact that The Eyewitness (Ella R.W.McKee's translation of the prize-losing novel, Der Augenzeuge) was published in 1977.

       The remainder of Weiß' work continues to be unavailable to English-speaking audiences.

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      Franz Kafka:

       Weiß remains best known as an acquaintance of Franz Kafka.
       Even in this role he seems to be only grudgingly accepted. Biographers from Max Brod on barely deign to mention him in their official records.
       As with others (Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth) Weiß was a close friend, but not the closest. Some distance always seemed to remain.

       Weiß apparently played the role of intermediary in some of Kafka's complicated romantic affairs. Perhaps people found (and find) this off-putting.

       Kafka and Weiß first met at the end of June 1913. They were of about the same age, with similar interests and similarities in their backgrounds.
       When he first mentioned Weiß in his diary (1 July 1913) Kafka wrote that he is a:
Jewish physician, Jew of the kind that is closest to the type of the Western European Jew and to whom one therefore immediately feels close.
       Kafka eagerly helped Weiß edit his first novel, Die Galeere (about a radiologist).
       Kafka noted in his 1913 diary:
Dec. 8. Artificial constructions in Weiss's novel. The strength to abolish them, the duty to do so. I almost deny experience.
       It was a fruitful collaboration for both parties. Weiß recognized Kafka's talents and how they could complement his own. He was receptive to Kafka's suggestions without falling completely under Kafka's experience-denying spell. Die Galeere hardly became a Kafkaesque novel -- it is, through and through, a Weiß-work-- but Kafka's sensibilities helped shape it into the fine novel that it is.
       Kafka, too, gained: learning how to shape a work very different from his own, learning how to justify his artistic vision to one who had an equally strong one. Learning how to work with writing that could not be simply dismissed or destroyed or begun over (because Weiß would not permit any of these courses).

       Kafka sincerely admired much of Weiß' work as well. "It is splendid", he wrote about Die Feuerprobe (in a letter to Max Brod, January, 1924).

       They were kindred spirits, complementing one another while also always maintaining a certain distance. Each had complex relationships with women -- and, tellingly, each allowed the other into this very private sphere. Neither was a simple man to deal with -- Weiß, certainly, had a reputation of being fairly disagreeable -- and yet they were true friends.

       One English edition of Kafka's diaries (Diaries 1914-23) nicely opens:
January 2. A lot of time well spent with Dr. Weiss.

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      Thomas Mann:

       Thomas Mann never met Ernst Weiß. Perhaps that is why he could be so supportive of Weiß and his work. In person Weiß always seemed to rub people the wrong way.

       Ten years after Weiß' death, in October 1950, Mann wrote to American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, on behalf of Weiß' heirs, suggesting that Georg Letham be translated into English and published by Knopf:
I am writing to you in this matter because I have always been a sincere admirer of the great narrative talent of Ernst Weiss, and have often come out for him in the days before Hitler. I never met him personally, but there existed a kind of friendship by correspondence between us. Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka.
       More than 50 years have passed since then.
       Georg Letham remains untranslated.

       Weiß dedicated one of his last novels, Der Verführer, to Thomas Mann. Mann was appreciative -- and impressed. He thanked Weiß in a letter (22 December 1937):
Das Buch gehört zu dem Allerinteressantesten, das mir in Jahren vorgekommen.
Man ist angefüllt von Eindrücken, erregt und okkupiert von sonderbar existenten aber unvergeßlich geprägten Bildern, Menschen und Geschehnissen. -- Übrigens ist das ganze sehr österreichisch.

(The book belongs to the very most interesting that I have come across in years.
One is filled with impressions, excited and gripped by striking existent but unforgettably cast images, characters, and events. -- By the way: it is all very Austrian.)
       Der Verführer has not been translated into English.

       Mann helped Weiß, both directly and indirectly. He offered financial support to Weiß, and provided useful contacts during the difficult years of exile. Despite this assistance, Weiß was among the unfortunates who could not escape Europe in time.

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      Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth:

       In 1936, living in exile, with their world crumbling around them, Stefan Zweig wrote to Joseph Roth:
Außer Ihnen will ich von Deutschen nur Ernst Weiß sehen.

(Apart from you Ernst Weiß is the only German I want to see.)

       Zweig and Roth were two of the last authors truly representative of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Others -- like Weiß, or Hermann Broch and Robert Musil -- were products of the same culture, and also closely tied to it, but not as completely as Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth.
       Ernst Weiß knew them well, especially in their shared Parisian exile in the late 1930s.

       Roth died in 1939, and was buried in Paris. When Zweig returned there later that year, he paid his respects at the cemetery before calling on Weiß. Weiß complained that even dead Roth was of more concern to Zweig than he was.
       It was, apparently, a typical reaction.
       It was apparently also true: Weiß was almost always secondary, almost an afterthought, even to those closest to him.

       Weiß dedicated his 1936 novel, Der arme Verschwender, to Zweig.

       Stefan Zweig was also a suicide, taking his life in 1942, in Brazil.

       Joseph Roth only came to appreciate Weiß in those later years. His dislike of the man, earlier, was striking (and he never entirely overcame his antipathy).
       In a letter to Hölderlin-scholar Pierre Bertaux (7 March 1929) Roth wrote:
Ernst Weiß, von dem Sie schreiben, ist eher eine Erscheinung typique, wenn Sie Prag und die Juden aus dem alten Österreich besser kennen würden. Er ist ein Mensch aus dem Ghetto. Ein Mann, der als Marinearzt die Küsten fremder Länder berührt hat, ohne seinen Fuß an Land zu setzen und in seiner Kabine geblieben ist, um zu schreiben. Ein Verstand, der sich schähmt Verstand zu sein und, ohne es zu wissen, eine "folie" spielt. Es scheint mir, daß dieser Mensch unfähig ist, gelähmt und kindisch, aus der Pubertät nicht heraus und mit Wonne darin verharrend. Lesen Sie sein Buch Nahar und Tiere in Ketten. Sie werden sehen, daß dieser hochbegabte Schriftsteller die expressionistische Mode ohne Not mitgemacht hat und nur aus Scham vor der "Normalität". Er hat nie "courage" gehabt. Er hat sich immer geschämt, courage zu haben. Courage ist ein Bruder der Vernunft und Ernst Weiß hielt sich an die "Folie". Er war ein deutscher Dichter. Sein bestes ist die Novelle Franta Slin.

(Ernst Weiß, about whom you write, is more a type, if you knew Prague and the Jews of the old Austria better. He is a man from the ghetto. A man who travelled to the coasts of foreign lands as a ship's doctor without setting foot on land, and who stayed in his cabin in order to write. An intellect that is ashamed to be an intellect and, without knowing it, plays a "folie". It seems to me that this man is incompetent, paralyzed and childish, not advancing out of puberty and gleefully holding on to it. Read his book Nahar and Tiere in Ketten. You will see that this immensely talented author went along with the Expressionistic fashion without suffering and only out of shame of "normality". He never had courage. He was always ashamed of having courage. Courage is a brother of reason and Ernst Weiß clung to "folie". He was a German poet. His best is the novella Franta Slin.)
       The dismissal is almost complete, going so far as to switch to the past tense, as if, in 1929, the author was already entirely done with: "He was a German poet."

       There must be more behind Roth's comments, so deep and bitter does the dislike run through it. Even his choice of the slim, obscure Franta Slin as Weiß' best work seems more to add insult to injury than to judge honestly. Roth does grant (almost incidentally) that Weiß has talent, but he fixates on the most vivid Expressionistic works, ignoring the clinical Der Fall Vukobrankovics, or the more traditional novels Weiß had published by that time, including Die Galeere and Boëtius von Orlamünde (later re-published as: Der Aristokrat).

       The dislike expressed in the letter seems deeply personal.
       But they did become friends. Roth wrote about their relationship to Zweig (in February 1936):
Ernst Weiß sehe ich manchmal. Er ist bitterer als ich und zugleich zufriedener. Er verwundert mich sehr. Er ist oft ganz, ganz traurig. Er hat Sie gern, einer der Wenigen, der ehrlich ist im Gern-haben. Er hat sehr viel Tugend der Gerechtigkeit, deshalb schätze ich ihn. Aber warm werde ich nicht bei ihm.

(I sometimes see Ernst Weiß. He is more bitter than I am, and at the same time more at peace. He puzzles me greatly. He is often very, very sad. He likes you, he is one of the few who is sincere in his likes. He has a strong sense of justice, which is why I value him. But I can't truly warm to him.)
       Weiß did not find in either Zweig or Roth true intimates. They were acquaintances, trusting and appreciating one another, and sharing a great deal (from backgrounds to artistic commitment). But Weiß was always: wary, distant, difficult to approach. Difficult to like.

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      Odds, Ends:

       Anna Seghers knew Ernst Weiß.
       She got a visa to emigrate; Weiß did not.
       Seghers wrote a novel about those times and experiences: Transit (first published in 1944). In it there is a character, Weidel. An author who commits suicide under similar circumstances as Weiß'.
       The character is based on Ernst Weiß.

       Bertolt Brecht saw the original production of Weiß' 1923 tragi-comedy Olympia. Like critic Alfred Kerr, Brecht did not like it: "hysterische Kuhscheiße" he called it in a reassuring letter to Arnolt Bronnen (March 1923). "Hysterical cowpat", in Ralph Mannheim's decorous translation. But Brecht meant: cowshit, pure and simple.

       In Weiß' early autobiographical "Fragment der Kindheit" ("Fragment of Childhood") the fictionalized family name is: Frankenstein. He makes himself the offspring, the creation of a Frankenstein -- though here named Edgar, not Adam.

       In a letter to Robert Klopstock (September 1921), Kafka wrote about Weiß:
He obviously keeps himself healthy, and very healthy, by sheer will. If he wanted to, he could be as sick as anybody else.
       Ultimately, in 1940, Weiß determination failed him. Sickness within could be held at bay, but the diseased world closed in all around him. Like Walter Benjamin, he was close to escaping as the Germans approached but couldn't face the last risks.

       In his 22 December 1937 letter to Weiß, Thomas Mann also wrote about Der Verführer:
Dabei diese Einsamkeit -- bis zur Kälte.

(All the while this loneliness -- all the way to frigidity.)
       He never escaped his isolation, freezing, finally, completely.

       Even his suicide was a botched one: successful, but not immediate.
       The Germans had taken Paris by the time he expired.

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       Ernst Weiß was an important writer. He achieved success, but never great success. He remained second choice, an author of note but one that could be put aside, for the moment or for longer.
       It was something basic to his nature, to manage to be overlooked in this manner.
       Even anonymity couldn't make a difference: he submitted his manuscript under a pen-name for the literary competition sponsored by the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom in 1938 and still couldn't come out ahead.
       His visa application was in the same batch as Anna Seghers'. She received one. He didn't.
       Some people have all the luck. Good or bad.

       Ernst Weiß was not a comfortable author
       He was not a comfortable person.
       But many admired his work: Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Oskar Loerke, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka.
       And many admired him, too, even if it was a grudging sort of respect.
       And he was a true friend to some.

       Several of Weiß' works are remarkable, and his entire oeuvre is of interest. Closely associated with the Expressionist movement, he also moved far beyond that.
       Mann found his work very Austrian, but Weiß -- a long-time Berlin resident -- also acutely described the specifically German misere. He bridged the writing of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig (coming from the deepest Austro-Hungarian tradition) and that of Alfred Döblin and Jakob Wassermann (with their more German and social focus).

       Döblin is his only contemporary that produced a similarly rich and varied oeuvre (while also covering similar territory).

       "Ernst Weiss is in fact one of the few writers who may justly be compared to Franz Kafka", Thomas Mann judged. Such comparisons are difficult to make: Weiß' output, as a whole, is much broader. Kafka's is more compact -- and appears much deeper.
       But, yes, Weiß deserves his place as one of the German-language authors of the first half of the 20th centuries that simply can not be overlooked. Try as the fates might.

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© 2001 the complete review Quarterly
© 2001 the complete review